Each year, thousands of students graduate from the University of Utah excited to begin the next chapter of their lives. Armed with a degree, knowledge, friendships, memories and enthusiasm, they embark on their journeys, which take them all over the world. University of Utah alumni are a passionate group of people dedicated to making the world a better place, and include among their ranks astronauts, senators, authors, artists, Pulitzer Prize winners, athletes and more. Over the next few weeks, as the next group of students prepare for graduation, we’ll meet a few of them. We hope you’ll enjoy getting know to know the Class of 2016.
From gangs to grades
I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in an alcoholic, dysfunctional household. I’m the youngest of five siblings and had an identical twin brother. We survived that household together. At the age of 23, my brother died after he fell into a mineshaft while hiking in Colorado. His body was never recovered.
I was lost. I could not put into words the devastation of losing my brother. I spun out of control and went into an abyss of drugs and alcohol. The other half of me was gone. It wasn’t until 15 years later that I emerged from the abyss.
I started going in and out of jails and prisons. As time marched on, I got involved with motorcycle clubs and gangs. The more I used, the more I drank, the more I sought out people like me. I didn’t have any skills to fall back on.
In 2007, I finally started my journey to recovery. I had gotten out of prison in 2006 and I got new charges after being at a house that got raided. Instead of getting more prison time, the judge gave me one more chance to turn my life around. I got into the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center and began working to end the cycle of addiction in my life, an in return, to help people with addiction and mental health problems.
Three years ago, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a cowboy name R.C. approached me and asked me why I didn’t try to get an education. I said, “I’m just not smart enough to get an education. Guys like me don’t go to places like that.” He said, “I didn’t ask you what you thought of yourself. Why don’t you go try? You know, a broken horse still has a spirit.”
I got into Salt Lake Community College and finished my two-year associate degree in social work. I became president of a social work group, implemented a food pantry while there and put in an application to come to the U. I thought for sure they wouldn’t accept me because of my history. The day the letter came from the U’s College of Social Work telling me that I’d been admitted, I stood in my living room and cried.
R.C. encouraged me and gave me the strength to try something different. Here I sit today, on the dean’s list and honor roll. I was able to change my core beliefs about myself.
As the class of 2016 moves forward, it’s important to recognize that there are people among us who have changed our lives with the right amount of encouragement and guidance. People like me can change. People in recovery can become useful members of society. I will graduate from the U’s bachelor of social work program, and I’ve been accepted into the master’s program. I would like to someday work in corrections. I’m working to get my record expunged. Education is a very freeing experience.
Brian Tease, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A new career inspired by cancer
When I was in college, I wanted to pursue medical school. But it wasn’t meant to be and I ended up in the financial industry as a successful bond trader, equities trader, and finally, a mortgage broker.
In 2006 my beloved mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Although she went into remission after treatment — her cancer recurred in 2009. At that point, I shuttered my small brokerage company and moved back home to Virginia to care for her. Those 18 months with her was transformational. Her medical providers’ vast knowledge of disease processes was so impressive — but even more so was their dedication and humanism. Their genuine concern for patients struck a chord.
I thought: Making lots of money isn’t everything … Maybe I’m destined for a higher purpose.
I discussed the idea of pursuing medical school with my mother, and she was incredibly supportive. She urged me to follow my heart. Understanding full well the obstacles and sacrifice such a plan would entail in midlife — I decided to take a leap of faith. I enrolled in an organic chemistry class, and on the first day of class I knew immediately that this was what I was meant to do.
After my mother’s passing, I returned to Utah with a heavy heart. I finished my post–baccalaureate classes at the U and became a cardiology research coordinator at University Hospital. After much hard work and hope, I was accepted to University of Utah’s School of Medicine. Acutely aware of the odds of getting into medical school, I will always be profoundly grateful. Thus began my career in medicine.
Being an older medical student lends a unique perspective. Ranking in the top of my class, or making absurd amounts of money don’t matter so much any more. Experience has taught me that time is a fleeting and most precious resource. I understand well that I will have less time once I begin practicing, and I want it to matter. I hope to impact patients’ lives for the better — through lasting relationships, healing and comforting as much as possible and by serving as patients’ strongest advocate.
In short, my simple but earnest desire is to add value to this world — so that I may leave it a little better than when I came. If I can achieve this, then I will have fulfilled my dream of a life lived with purpose.
Kim Davenport, Richmond, Virginia
Medicine (Medical Doctor)
30 years later
I am a 58-year-old disabled student, and I will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies at the end of this semester. The value of education is something that my parents — Tongan immigrants — instilled in me from an early age and throughout my life. After sending seven of my own children to college, I returned to the U to complete the degree that I started 30 years ago.
I used to work for the university. I was a maintenance supervisor. Twelve years ago, I became disabled because of health issues — I’m dealing with lupus, diabetes, heart and lung problems. I had to stop working. Ironically, though, the disability gave me the time to study. Instead of staying home to complain about my ongoing poor health, I chose to come back to school.
Not many people at the university know that I am struggling physically. Fewer know that I am on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. Being sick is very distracting and discouraging as I try to finish up my degree. My health care requires a lot of time, including constant doctors visits. I often feel like I don’t have the stamina to fulfill my assignments. Even walking to the library is exhausting — I have to stop two or three times to rest. During school, I also have to find time to give myself insulin shots and even to sleep between classes. Nevertheless, my life strategy is simple: Stay positive despite my physical ailments. I cannot afford to look and feel sick on the road to my degree.
I draw energy from my children and their will to further their education. I am passionate about my education because I believe in making a difference in my community. As an American-Pacific Islander, I can contribute to the research and solution of many complex societal issues facing people of color, immigrants and transnational residents. After graduation, I look forward to contributing to solving equity-related problems in the United States.
Alama Uluave, Tonga
Studying all over the world
The most memorable experiences I’ve had in college have been the times I was able to explore my love for the environment through opportunities to travel to Panama and Madagascar. In Bocas del Toro, Panama, I was able to study marine biology, which shaped my next three years at the U, and it influenced the types of courses I pursued. This past summer, I had the opportunity to spend four weeks in Nosy Komba, Madagascar, conducting surveys of the coral reef and fish populations. I worked with the local community to create sustainable fishing practices to support the growing population on Nosy Komba. Madagascar was a great opportunity to incorporate the things I learned in anthropology and environmental and sustainability courses in a real-life setting. One of the most valuable things I’m graduating with is a passion for helping people and the environment, and my degree is a tool for pursuing my passion.
Eva Grimmer, Salt Lake City, Utah
Environmental and sustainability studies
Hunter and Mackenzie Simper, only a year apart, grew up in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, and were homeschooled by their mother before taking classes at Salt Lake Community College. Mackenzie considered being a doctor, and Hunter considered engineering. Instead, both fell for mathematics. In 2014, they transferred to the University of Utah. Each now is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in math. Mackenzie, whose research has focused on probability, is minoring in computer science and psychology. She loves that “the Math Department really encourages students to do research.” She will attend the University of Cambridge this fall as the first Churchill Scholar from the U. Hunter, who is interested in algebra, also plans to start a doctoral program. The siblings adore math. Hunter says, “The point when math becomes fun is when you can go through a whole day of lectures with almost no numbers on the chalkboard.”
Hunter and Mackenzie Simper, Cottonwood Heights, Utah
“Meet the Graduates”
‘I want to make a difference’
Law (Juris Doctor)
John W. Angell Jr.
Film and media arts
All about family
Human development and family studies
Commencement is the first step
Coming full circle
Master of city and metropolitan planning
Finding peace at the U
Peace and conflict studies
Elisabeth “Lizi” Zachary
Transitioning to a big universe
Physics & Mathematics
Oh, the places you’ll go
Environmental and sustainable studies
& International studies
An educational example
Using faith to break down barriers
One step closer
Latin American studies
Going back to school
Master’s in civil and environmental engineering
Always do the arts
Fulfilling two dreams
Psychology & Biology
Service brings happiness
Try as many things as possible
Taking time for loved ones
Doctor of Nursing Practice
Certified Nurse Midwifery
Living the American dream
A career inspired by imagination
Master’s in materials science and engineering
Coding a better world
Seeing the forest through the trees
Exercise and sports science
Health, society and policy
The University of Utah commencement and convocation ceremonies are held annually at the conclusion of spring semester. Candidates for graduation from the summer 2015, fall 2015, spring 2016 or summer 2016 terms may attend. Commencement will be held on Thursday, May 5, 2016, at 6:30 p.m. at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. This year’s commencement speaker will be foreign policy expert and work-life balance thought leader Anne-Marie Slaughter. Honorary degrees will be awarded to Kem C. Gardner, Lynette Nielsen Gay, Kirk M. Ririe and George D. Smith. For more information, please visit the Commencement Ceremony page.